Vin Scully, the best play-by-play voice of broadcasting’s first century seems immune to aging. He was a prodigy at 22 calling Brooklyn Dodgers games. And at 92 this Friday, he seems mentally bulletproof.
When we spoke last week, we covered a mix of times over a span of seventy years. Vin didn’t cease to amaze. He instantly retrieved details new and old, didn’t once fuss with his recall and his word retention was seamless.
Scully’s voice is still in perfect fettle. And if you wouldn’t know that he’s a nonagenarian, you’d guess he’s in his sixties. He would likely still galvanize his audience today, opening up a broadcast, “It’s time for Dodgers baseball!”
It’s three years since he retired and I asked him how it’s going. He said, “It’s okay. I thought time would flow slowly and that I would regularly read a couple good books. It’s the other way around. Time flies. My wife Sandy and I have two expressions. One is, ‘Wow, it’s Friday,’ and the other is, ‘Did you see, it’s 5 o’clock!’” We laugh.
Vin and I covered key moments early and late in his career and how the world has changed. These are some interesting highlights of our conversation.
Language usage today versus your early years in the booth?
In a 1957 game in Cincinnati, manager Walt Alston was booted. You suggested that Alston must have said something untoward to the umpire. It’s not a word you’d hear often today. Even the New York Times ends sentences in prepositions, something frowned upon by grammarians of older generations. The use of the language has changed.
I’m out there with the people. We all adjust. It would take someone astute to make the distinction. But yes, people are more casual today. There is less formality of language. There’s the effect of television where almost anything goes. It’s definitely a trend.
Thoughts on political correctness?
I found a recording of game one of the 1975 World Series. Curt Gowdy was behind the mic for NBC. The Reds and Red Sox opened up at Fenway Park. Prior to the ceremonial first pitch, NBC picked up the announcement made by stadium voice, Sherm Feller who asked attendees to turn their attention to the field where he said William Simon, the U. S. Secretary of Treasury, was representing the president of the United States to throw out the first pitch. Upon Simon’s introduction, fans booed. When the ceremonial picture-taking was over, Gowdy told the television audience that gas prices in New England were among the highest in the nation and that politicians are often booed at public venues.
There was no backlash or criticism of Gowdy’s comment. It was fairly innocuous. This was well before social media and the advent of national cable. Fulltime sports-talk radio wasn’t around yet either. How would you have handled it?
I would never have gotten involved in the statement that Curt made. That would not have been my ballgame. I might’ve mentioned the name Gerald Ford because the reference to him was simply as president.
The only time I can think of when I did a little bit of a high wire act, was when I took note of a young man coming up to bat who was from some small town in Venezuela, (Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez from Venezuela’s San Francisco de Asis).
He came from such poverty to the United States. Being a Major Leaguer, of course, he stayed in modern high-rise hotels with room service; amenities that come with the job. Then he goes home to a socialistic country. And if you’ve studied it, socialism has never worked.
If I had said it now, with people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the country perhaps open more toward socialism, I would probably be challenged by a lot of people. As it was, I was not. That was the one time I dipped my toe in the political correctness situation. And I’m glad it went by. I’ve never come close again.
I don’t want to say that the country is in an inflammatory area but there are certainly heated discussions on the weather too.
Is there climate change? Is there not climate change? Can human beings affect the climate? So today, even with it comes to the weather, you have to be very sensitive and careful, especially on-air.
Another career path?
Vin Scully, a sportswriter?
I wrote for the college newspaper at Fordham and also did some work for the New York Times. My byline was Special correspondent to the New York Times. At one point, I was thrilled when I was asked to cover a big basketball game at Rose Hill (on campus). The Times sent a telegrapher to campus who sat right next to me and sent my copy directly to the paper. That was heavy wine for a kid who at one point thought he would be a writer.
What kind of sports did you cover on-air at Fordham?
Most of the sporting events I did was by ticker, sitting in the studio. If communication was lost, I would have a dog or something like that run out on the field until we caught up.
I did a few baseball games but no one really heard it. I played for the Rams and occasionally called games to myself standing in center field. I did not do much real play-by-play in school.
What impressed Red Barber when you handled your first assignment for him on CBS in 1949, a football game in Boston?
Red was impressed by the fact that I was on the roof and that although it was bitter cold and I did not have a coat with me, I never complained. I had only 50 yards of cable and I ran from one end of the roof to the other as the teams marched up and down the field.
What stuck with Red too was that when he said, ‘Let’s get 40 seconds from Vin Scully in Boston,’ I had to time things perfectly and I did. Whatever he asked for that day, I provided it; ten, thirty or forty seconds. Not more, not less.
World Series of 1953
Another big break in your career occurred abruptly at the end of the 1953 regular season. You got to do your first World Series at age 25 on NBC Television.
Red wanted more money so he wasn’t going to get the job. They didn’t want Connie Desmond because of his history with alcohol. So they gave it to me. I was overwhelmed. But before I agreed to it, I told Ed Wilhelm of the Maxon Agency and Craig Smith of Gillette that I would want to talk first to both Barber and Desmond.
Red said to me that his business affair with Gillette had nothing to do with me and he gave me his blessing to take the job.
I called Connie and told him that they had offered me the job ahead of him. And he said, ‘No no. I have had problems with Gillette, (meaning drinking). You have my blessing, go ahead and do it.’
Barber then left Brooklyn for the Yankees and your role was elevated in 1954
Any resentment from others? You were all of 26 and your visibility swelled in New York.
When Red left in 1954, I didn’t really feel any additional pressure. I wasn’t replacing Red. Connie was second and I was third so I was just moving up a little. It was a comfortable position for me because Connie was great.
The problem was sad. Connie had become an alcoholic and his career went down in flames.
While Red was there, the relationship in the booth was one that we will probably never see again. Red was the father, Connie the older brother and I was the kid.
Red was strict. If I said something on the broadcast that he objected to, he would never correct me on air but once the broadcast ended, he would let me know about it or suggest some alternative as to how to get out of that kind of spot.
If we were on the road and Connie saw that I felt a little downcast, he would be quick to say, ‘Oh come on. Let’s just go get a beer. Don’t worry, everything will be okay.’
Connie was a wonderful baseball announcer. He could do football, basketball and tennis. He could do everything. And he had a remarkable ability to have laughter in his voice.
Connie’s undoing in Brooklyn forced a change on Labor Day Weekend, 1956. Desmond was out and Jerry Doggett was brought in to replace Desmond. It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship between you and Jerry, 32 seasons. You’ve said before that without him, you weren’t sure how successful and popular the broadcasts in Southern California would have been. After the 1957 season, Al Helfer didn’t make the cut. It was just you and Jerry, two announcers not three, going to Los Angeles. Radio would be indispensable there. No home games would be televised.
I would do seven innings and Jerry would do two. Only one man was on-air at a time. Jerry would do the third inning, the seventh-inning and the 10th when the game extended into extra innings.
Jerry was a dear friend and a wonderful human being. If there was praise issued, I was getting it. It was almost as though Jerry was overlooked. At no time in all our years together was there any sign of frustration on his part. No irritation or jealousy. Nothing. He was just a beautiful guy. With Jerry in the booth, it really established my career. We worked together very well. He was great. During the season we were together of course all the time. We never parted. We ate dinner together. We took walks. We had lunch together.
Your thoughts on how television is formatted today?
Today on TV you have the expert analyst who himself generally played the game. There’s a tendency to talk after every pitch or after every play. I don’t know. Maybe he has to justify his role, his reason for being in the booth.
And today they get into areas where I am totally lost. They spend an awful lot of time on how to throw a certain pitch. I’m basically simple minded. If I’m watching a game, I don’t need to know how to throw a certain pitch.
The launch angle! I heard that and it almost knocked me off the chair. Analytics have passed me by 100 miles by now.
Pioneer Ted Husing
You’ve been steadfast about not commenting on other broadcasters. But you’ve often talked about your experiences as a child crawling under those old four legged radios and listening to a football game coming out of the south. As such, you must have heard Bill Stern, Harry Wismer and Ted Husing, all pioneers; guys who had to develop the nomenclature as they went along. Any thoughts on a particular pioneer who stuck out?
The one who might’ve helped me was Ted Husing, (1901-62). When I turned on those football games and Ted was the announcer, I was quite delighted.
Not only did he have a marvelous voice which he modulated so well, he had a great vocabulary. I remember when Ted did some fights, instead of saying bloody nose, he talked about the sanguinary flow. It knocked me for a loop.
In those rich tones, he was wonderful. Husing went beyond what you would hear today from football announcers; the line, the linebackers and secondary. Ted would go beyond that, he used the word tertiary.
He was an intriguing character. He had an assistant named Jimmy Dolan. The two were at a bar, Toots Shor’s in New York. Ted told Jimmy, ‘The next woman who comes through the door, I will marry her.’ True to his word, a woman came through and he married her. It did not last very long. Ted was a most interesting man. As a broadcaster, I loved him.
Vin offers an unprecedented and unsolicited comment, comparing broadcasters which I had never heard him do.
The closest to Husing would probably be Dick Enberg. Dick had a beautiful voice. He did so many sports, football, baseball, tennis, basketball and others. He did all of them very well. Listening to Dick would occasionally strike a memory cord that he sounded a bit like Husing.
Radio or TV
Which did you prefer? In the past you’ve differentiated the two. You’ve said that on radio, you’re a puncher and on television, you’re a counter-puncher.
Radio isn’t constricting at all. When something happens, I can tell a story or talk about a kid sitting in the eighth row eating popcorn. It offers total freedom to paint and create a picture. On TV the picture is there. You have to be careful not to talk too much. A play-by-play man on television has to have an eye riveted on the monitor and talk about whatever shot is on the screen.
Sitting back, laid-back, having fun; radio was more fun than television.
I asked Scully, a lifelong golfer, whether he still plays. “Oh no. I’m an honorary member at Bel-Air Country Club but I haven’t played in years.
“My wife (Sandy) and I are doing well together. It’s the most important thing left in life.”
As Scully and I get set to hang up, I tell him that I look forward to reaching out again before his 93d birthday. He chuckled. “If you want to make God smile, tell him your plans. At this point, I’m talking about making it to 92!”
Scully hasn’t lost his sense of humor either. When I confirmed his email address with him, he underscored that dodgers is spelled all in lower case because as he put it, “They didn’t win the World Series!’
What a man!